Audio Research VTM200 monoblock power amplifier Page 2
Wang wasn't finished. He suggested that I listen as well to the company's Magic Woofer speaker cables: separate runs for plus and ground on each channel. I rolled my eyes as he told me that a number of his dealers felt that the Magic was the cable to use with Audio Research tube amps. "Okay, okay, I'll give 'em a shot."
Cable Changes Everything
With Harmonic Technology Pro-Silway II interconnect in place of the old cable, there was a significant change: The bass firmed up and rejoined the music, the midrange took on a richer, more full-bodied texture, and the top remained extended, detailed, and ultra-revealing, but not quite as bright.
Later, I inserted the Harmonic Technology Pro-9 speaker cables, and things improved even further in the same directions. Finally, I substituted Harmonic Tech's Magic Woofer speaker cables, which are intended for full-range use and for the woofer half of a bi-amped or biwired system.
The sound had grown more musically satisfying with each cable upgrade, but with the Magic Woofer cable, the system finally began to communicate the music's emotional center—though still not as effectively as the Hovland/Nu-Vista 300 combo had effortlessly the first time I heard it. It was as if a switch had been thrown. I know that sounds a bit dramatic, but it was unmistakable, and was reinforced when I tried another expensive set of interconnect/speaker cables, then one more "reasonably" priced. Neither of those sets was able to pull it all together as well as the Harmonic Tech cables—at least with the ARC VTM200s.
I have never heard so cable-dependent an amplifier. Perhaps the VTM200's sensitivity has to do with its claimed extended bandwidth of 200kHz, which indicates an output transformer of extremely high quality. But no doubt: with the Amati Homages and the Ayre K-1x, the VTM200 monoblocks sounded best with the Harmonic Technology Pro-Silway II/Magic Woofer combo. That's what I used for the review.
A Big Sound
The ARC VTM200 was musically generous, powerful, rhythmically forceful, and "fast." Nothing warm or mellow about it, but, with the right cable, it could sound very coherent, harmonically and rhythmically, with fast, snappy, very cleanly rendered transients. It possessed tremendous drive and authority. The bottom end was very, very solid and well-controlled, with fine renderings of kick drums and acoustic bass. The lower mids to mids had the airy give of a good tube amp, while I found the upper mids and lower highs to be slightly opaque and somewhat lacking in liquidity. The top end was dead quiet, airy, open, and detailed, with a slight bit of dryness.
But don't forget the other variable: the Ayre K-1x. If you go back and read last September's review of the Audio Research Reference Two line stage, you'll appreciate what would appear to be the tight, jigsaw-puzzle sonic fit between the Ref. Two's slight warmth and its bit of softness on top and the tonal balance of these monoblocks. I felt obliged to hear these amplifiers with the Reference Two, both because I think their sound has been tailored to fit the preamp, and because I suspect it will be part of the system most Audio Research dealers will use to demo them.
Enter the Ref. Two
Fortunately, the sample of the Reference Two I had reviewed was still in New York, spending time in Jonathan Scull's system, so I was able to get it back and substitute it for the Ayre K-1x. After two days of extended listening I found that the combination featured the expected improvements: slightly more weight and warmth on bottom, though the amps hardly were in need of that, and a bit more of the expected "give" and warmth on top.
The payoff was an even more dynamic, more exciting and detailed sonic picture. The combo created an enormous soundstage that maintained proportionality as it grew in size. Image solidity and three dimensionality became "Viewlex-like." The combo rendered The Band's eponymous album better than I've ever heard it, though as the album, recorded in Sammy Davis Jr.'s poolside cabaña, was known for its murk, the VTM200's high-frequency character was a perfect match.
I spent one evening playing well recorded rock LPs such as Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever, and even Fleetwood Mac's Rumors on a plain vanilla Reprise pressing, which is the best—and I've heard all the contenders! I concluded that this system was an absolute stunner in terms of sheer power, dynamic expression, imaging, low-level retrieval of detail, and rhythmic tautness. The presentation was exciting, bracing, and invigorating. It was the kind of sound you can just stay up and listen to late into the night. And I did.
The next session, after a sufficient warm-up, I hit the classical shelves and I played an evening's worth of orchestral and solo music on LP (using both original pressings and reissues) and CD. In the end, while the insertion of the Reference Two gave strings greater suppleness and warmth, I still found the presentation on the dry, analytical side. Classic's 45rpm edition of The Royal Ballet, Gala Performances has intoxicating string sound. Though the overall presentation was nothing short of "visually" spectacular, I couldn't get the delicacy and bloom I'd hoped for from this recording.
I had to conclude: If you're looking for "lush," you've come to the wrong place. The VTM200 was ruthless and revealing on top. It was not a softening or homogenizing agent. And, as John Atkinson noticed when he gave the amps a listen before taking them back to Brooklyn for measurements, they seemed to put surface noise in the same image space as the music, which made them somewhat less attractive when listening to vinyl that was anything less than mint.
However, with good vinyl and good-sounding CDs, and with the right associated equipment and cables, these amps put on a great show. When everything was right, tracks like Peter Case's superbly recorded "Put Down the Gun," from The Man with the Post-Modern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Blue Guitar (Geffen GHS 24238), had everything: tremendous kick-drum weight and authority, snares that snapped and cracked as they do live, and bright but sweetly shimmering cymbals. The acoustic and electric guitars had just the right mix of body and pick on string, and a sensation of "digging" on strummed strings that any guitarist would recognize as real.
On Walk With Me, a superb-sounding gospel recording by the Arc Choir (Mapleshade 04132), the spread of the group across the stage and the immediacy of the massed vocals and handclaps raised the hairs on my neck—which let me know that the system was really communicating the music. Until I'd optimized the system with the right cables, that hadn't happened. Still, using the Ayre preamp, there was more of an unnatural physical edge to the vocal images and the handclaps than I would have preferred, though there was greater detail than I'd been used to (and more obvious tape hiss from this analog recording).
Jackson Browne's debut album, Saturate Before Using (Asylum SD 5051), was stunning through the VTM200s. The background singers on "Dr. My Eyes" appeared as individuals in three-dimensional space as I'd not heard them before, and Jesse Davis' electric guitar popped dynamically from the left speaker with startling clarity. I've always regarded this as a somewhat dull recording; the detail and crystalline clarity the ARCs brought to the top end served as a perfect complement.
Debussy's Images for Orchestra (Charles Munch/Boston Symphony, RCA/Classic LSC-2282, LP), which positively glowed through the Hovland/Musical Fidelity combo, had a slightly drier quality. The VTM200s' rendition was equally enticing, with a greater sensation of the hall space but a drier and less lush orchestral presentation. The amps' ability to layer instruments front to back while suggesting the arc of their placement on the stage was as effective as I've heard in my room with the Amatis, and held true for all of the well-recorded classical albums I auditioned.
In short, I ended up enjoying my time with the VTM200s but wishing for a bit more...something.
No one in his or her right mind would spend $14,000 on a pair of monoblocks based only on a rave review, and this hasn't been exactly a rave. Nonetheless, I hope this mixed review will not stop anyone interested from auditioning this powerful amplifier. It has a great deal to offer, especially in terms of orchestral weight, dynamic authority, and resolution of detail, and, I suspect, might have more to offer in association with other electronics and loudspeakers and cables.
I've heard Audio Research's superb-sounding VT100 Mk.II and VT200 stereo amplifiers in a variety of systems using non-ARC preamps both tube and solid-state, and the VTM200 shares a similar sonic signature—except for its top end, which seemed to be somewhat out of touch with the rest of the spectrum. If you don't need this much brute force and don't want to spend this much, I'd suggest checking those less expensive amps out as well.
Even with cables that seemed to reconnect the top with the rest and flesh out the midrange somewhat, I had a problem with the sound of strings, which were frequently thin and rarely sensuous, even on recordings well known for superb string tone. In any case, the VTM200 demands very careful component and cable matching to sound its best, and its tonal balance—at least in my system—suggests that it was designed to be used with Audio Research's own Reference Two line stage, or a similarly rich-sounding preamplifier.